On Location from the Big Island, Part 3
We filled our first five days on the Big Island with plenty of beaches, food, and local color. Hilo was an incredible shift from Kona, and our trip to Kilauea was likely to be that same sort of shift back. Our last three days on the island would bring us to the volcano at last, to the craggy coastlines and deep valleys all over the island, and back to the coral-graffitied lava fields on the Kohala Coast once more.
Day 6: Kilauea
Everything I'd read from people who'd visited the Hawaiian volcanoes used nearly the same word to describe what they'd seen: moonscape. Maybe I was watching a different television channel growing up, but what I saw when we got there was anything but lunar. In so many cultures the moon is portrayed as feminine, cool, and blue. Actual pictures from the lunar landings show its cratered landscape in shadows and grayscale. Walking the 4-mile trail around the Kilauea Iki crater was more like I'd imagined Mars. Rocky, blistering, and loud. Not in the sound sense, but in the way that the landscape overwhelms you with its scale, that the massive geologic changes that took place not so long ago under your feet show their presence everywhere. There's no subtlety in a volcano.
It was a relatively easy hike, with stairs going down to the floor and a switchback going back up to the parking lot. The floor was smooth and flat, the trail marked clearly, and plenty of interesting steam vents and formations to investigate. And it wasn't hot, which was the big surprise of the day. The rails on the staircases were hotter than the volcano floor. It took us a couple of hours to walk around it and through the Thurston Lava Tube, which was at the trailhead. We headed to the Jagger Museum, where we could get a closer look at another crater, but then had to circle back towards the coast because the volcano was releasing excessive sulfur dioxide and they'd closed the loop around the park as a precautionary measure.
We headed down Chain of Craters road, 18 miles to the coast. When we reached the end of the road, we looked back to see the scars on the landscape. Some of it looked like melted hot fudge. The coastline was equally rugged, although it wasn't possible to drive to where the lava was flowing into the ocean. We stopped a few miles short of that and stumbled our way to the cliffs, blown hard by wind and ocean spray. It was certainly dramatic, the seas were blue like Van Gogh's blues.
Sunday night dinner was our fancy meal for the week, a recommendation given to me by Patricia Eddy, of Cook Local. We hit the Hilo Bay Cafe, a little spot stuck right in the middle of an ordinary strip mall, but proving looks were deceiving. Their lilikoi mojitos with white rum were damn fine, and we split a salad with juicy local tomatoes and hearts of palm and ahi poke with plantain chips before dinner. The poke was fresh, cold, and full of nutty sesame flavor, definitely the best of our trip. For dinner I had seared scallops topped with tobiko, served with wasabi cream and green tea soba. Todd had a locally raised New York strip served with potatoes and a red wine sauce. The steak was expertly prepared.
Day 7: Baker Tom, Puna Hot Pools, and Kapoho Tide Pools
We'd had a busy week so far and wanted to completely relax on our last day. We headed up the road a bit until we found the source of the signs for Malasadas, a tiny shop called Baker Tom's. Neither of us had had a malasada before, but when we saw the giant fried sugar donuts, it didn't matter. We were in. Malasadas are the Portguese equivalent of a donut, larger and without a hole, rolled in granulated sugar. They're made with egg yolks, giving them a warm custard color, and are filled with everything from strawberry cheesecake to peanut butter and jelly. Todd picked a raspberry filled, and I went with lilikoi, pedestrian compared to the PB&J option. Unbelievable, and one of the real gems of our trip. Not just because the malasadas were soft and fresh, but because Tom was a hoot too.
Back on the road, down Mamalahoa toward the Puna District, we headed for the water. Warm water. That area's close to where the lava flows meet the ocean, so there are several spring-fed pools that also happen to be geothermally heated. Sure, you might smell a little sulfurous and get a bit of stink-eye from the locals, but 'Ahanalui Pool was a great find. Bathrooms, a place to rinse off, and easy ladders and steps to get in and out of the pool. Nearer to the ocean, where there's a break in the rocks letting the Pacific in, the water's cooler and you can actually see the waters mixing. If you sit still tiny little fish will surround you and peck at your hands and arms, probably eating off skin. We stayed a little while and then headed further up the road to the Kapoho Tide Pools.
I'd said that we'd moved to the rainy side of the island, didn't I? It was overcast that day and the pools didn't seem to have much in them. We walked around for a while looking for a place to snorkel, and only as we were getting ready to leave did we decide to take a dip in, just in case. Lucky break. Todd saw a brilliant blue fish, and the pool I entered was filled with a school of colorful fish, invisible from overhead but clear from underwater, as was the giant sea cucumber I nearly stepped on too. We stayed a little while longer, resting on the lava rocks and enjoying the solitude of the place. The walk back was a little harder than the walk out because the tide had come in and obliterated our path. Our reef shoes, great on dry lava, were a little slippery as we had to go in and out of the water as rain chased us to the car.
Cooled from the snorkeling, we headed to Pahoa for lunch at Ning's, a Thai place on the main road in town. We ordered green curry with chicken and larb gai, and braced ourselves with Thai coffee and iced tea. Both dishes were exceptional, spicy and tangy and filled with fresh herbs. Full and a little sunburned, we headed back to the apartment and a long night of eating through everything we had left, including several strawberry mochi.
Day 8: Waipio Valley, Kohala Mountain Road, Pololu Valley and homeward bound
Day 8 turned out to be a full day of its own, only because our flight didn't leave until 8:30 in the evening. We'd packed everything carefully deep in our checked suitcases so 10 hours of sitting in the car wouldn't melt the brick of Criollo or the exquisite lilikoi jam we'd bought. After saying goodbye to Hilo, we hit Baker Tom's once more for plain malasadas that we'd eat later in the day when we were craving snacks. From there, we took the leisurely routes on the old highway that had been replaced by Hawaii Belt Road. Snaking along the Hamakua Coast, the old Mamalahoa Highway was largely replaced after sections were destroyed in several tsunamis. That, and progress came with its 4-lane highway, rendering the 2-lane creeper an historical scenic route.
We made our way to the Waipio Valley lookout at the end of the road on the east side of the island. Waipio Valley, also called the Valley of the Kings, is where baby Kamehameha was hidden to protect him from being killed as a child. The road into the valley is extremely steep (25% grade) and you must have a 4x4 or a guide to take you down the road. Everything below is privately held, pristine, and isolated. We looked from above, but didn't venture down the mile-long path.
We lunched once more in Waimea, at a barbeque joint called Huli Sue's. It was a last-minute change from our Merriman's plan - only because we'd heard the sandwiches were unbeatable. It was a fortuitous stop. Piled high with meat (me, pork. Todd, beef) and cole slaw, the sandwiches were served on eggy local buns, soft like brioche, fries, and the iced tea was served in big Mason jar mugs. Sauce slicked down our arms, pooling juices from the meat with mayo from the slaw, good enough to lift the plate and slurp down the mess. And thankfully, this roadside joint had hot water and good soap in their bathrooms too.
From Waimea, we headed north on Kohala Mountain Road. It was 17 miles to the coast, and we figured it would give us another view of the island and allow us to burn a few more hours. What I didn't expect was the white-knuckle drive of that 17 miles. I could handle the turns and the narrow road - we weren't on a cliff, just a high road surrounded by pastures. But the wind was downright scary. We were in a convertible with the top up, the windows up, and I was creeping along at around 25 miles an hour as the car shifted from left to right. The trees were bent over, growing sideways from the wind, and the noise was deafening. I kid you not, the wind was probably going 60mph. We stopped at one overlook, but I couldn't get out of the car. I saw another person standing by the road - a big guy - and the wind was blowing him all over the place. It was exciting.
We finally arrived at the coast and headed east, towards the Pololu Valley. The highway ends at the valley's overlook, and you feel like you're at the end of the world. The wind was fierce like on Kohala Mountain Road, but it felt safe enough to walk around. There were one a few people there and some horses, and one lone coconut tree with coconuts threatening to launch an attack with any strong gust.
The rest of the afternoon we wandered down the coast stopping at every tiny town, every beach, and every resort, until it was time to head to the airport. We finally saw the gargantuan mega-resorts at Mauni Lani and Waikoloa Village (really, you need to shop at Tiffany's while you're on vacation?) and were disappointed at how difficult it was to access the beach at both places. No matter, we just wanted to see if there really were white sand beaches, umbrellas and waiters with pina coladas on call.
We'd had a great last day, and dined on our malasadas before getting on the plane. It would have been perfect if we didn't have a little mishap transferring planes in LA, but then again, I'm not sure why we didn't expect it. We were, after all, returning to civilization.